When people talk about success, they almost always end by saying that ‘nothing is going to happen overnight.’ In Olivia Rodrigo’s case, this is most definitely a lie. Olivia Rodrigo began 2021 as a relatively minor Disney star: she had a reoccurring role on Disney+ ‘High School Musical: The Musical: The Series’ and had appeared in other Disney channel shows. Although a fan favourite by avid Disney fans, she was little known outside of this marginal bracket. However, in the background, Olivia and her producer Dan Nigro had been tirelessly crafting and perfecting Olivia’s breakthrough into the music industry and main stage of pop. In early January 2021, the day finally arrived.
Olivia Rodrigo broke out of her anonymity with her debut single ‘drivers license.’ The track is an ode to Olivia’s vulnerability and heartbreak after she attempts to come to terms with the fragmentation of her past relationship. ‘drivers license’ marries the youthful and all-consuming passions of lovesickness and heartache with the sounds, symbolisms, and significance of first getting a license. Opening the track is the mournful repetition of a car alarm requesting the closing of a door. This cleverly mirrors the purpose of the lyrics which search for emotional closure and catharsis. Additionally, the romance itself is centred around the nostalgia of first learning to drive, and the exploration and spontaneity that it creates. In the bridge, Olivia sorrowfully sings:
‘Red lights, stop signs,
I still see your face in the white cars, front yards,
Can’t drive past the places we used to go to,
‘Cause I still fuckin’ love you, babe’
These lyrics perfectly encompass the extremity of emotions behind the romance, and all that its fallout has caused. It signifies the end to the relationship and with it the freedom and naivety of young love. The track’s bridge became widely popular amongst many pop-listeners for its melodical reminiscence to Lorde’s ‘Pure Heroine’ and Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’. Taylor Swift even endorsed Olivia via Instagram, showing her support for the songstress and her debut single. ‘drivers license’ thus effectively gained Olivia fans as her breakout sound was equally fresh yet nostalgic, vulnerable yet catchy, and caught the eye of the younger generation.
The hype surrounding ‘drivers license’ sky-rocketed after gaining traction for its controversy in the media. It was speculated at the time of release that the track was penned by Olivia about her previous relationship with ‘HSM:TM:TS’ co-star Joshua Bassett. What ensued was a highly publicised love triangle between Rodrigo, Bassett, and Sabrina Carpenter, another ex-Disney star known for her role on ‘Girl Meets World’ and her subsequent music career. Bassett responded with his own track, ‘Lie Lie Lie’ and Carpenter with her pop track, ‘Skin.’
The love triangle propelled ‘drivers license’ and Rodrigo into the eye of multiple media hurricanes, sweeping her debut track to the top of the charts worldwide. The situation mimicked past Disney dating controversies, such as Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth, Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, and Nick Jonas and Selena Gomez. Rodrigo solidified her fanbase through this controversy as Disney watchers and Twitter stans alike took her side.
Since ‘drivers license’ and Rodrigo’s initial success in January and February, she put out two additional singles from her debut album ‘SOUR’. After her debut single, ‘driver’s license’ soared to the No.1 position of the US charts, her second single ‘déjà vu’ was excitedly anticipated. ‘déjà vu’ centres itself around an expired romance; supposedly a different emotional angle on the relationship in ‘drivers license’. The song mixes a glimmery leitmotif and dainty vocals with the forcefully punchy drums and production introduced post-chorus. ‘déjà vu’ is appealing for its cultural self-awareness; referencing ‘Glee’, Billy Joel, and trips to get ice cream in Malibu, Rodrigo perfectly captures the uniqueness of teen angst and romance.
Upon its release, ‘déjà vu’ testified Rodrigo as a new, versatile force in the pop world. Her third single, ‘good 4 u’ dived deeper into Rodrigo’s genre-bending experimentation, merging a plucky bassline, sassy lyrics, and an energetically screechy tonality reminiscent of Paramore’s Hayley Williams. It was a complete departure from the dreamy, heartbreak anthem of ‘drivers license.’ It showcased Rodrigo’s musical versatility and garnered support from rock and pop fans alike. ‘good 4 u’ debuted at the top of the US Hot 100 making history as Rodrigo was the first artist to debut two songs at No. 1 from a debut album.
Olivia Rodrigo debut album, ‘SOUR’, has attracted vast attention globally. Upon its day of release, it amassed over 60 million streams on Spotify, breaking the record for any album in 2021. It is predicted that ‘SOUR’ will peak at No. 1 around the globe and is on track to become one of this year’s highest-selling albums. Rodrigo’s explosive beginning in the music industry has confirmed her as one of pop’s breakthrough and most exciting artists for the future: her ability to embody the angst and melodrama of youth speaks for itself. Rodrigo’s unique attraction straddles genres and generations as she expels the hornets of heartbreak from her chest and exposes her emotions through catchy, lovesick anthems.
Illustration: Anna Kuptsova